Burmese Consumer Group Makes Bonfire of Illicit Snacks

By Khine Thant Su 21 August 2014

RANGOON — A Burmese consumer advocacy group has launched a campaign to confiscate and incinerate food products believed to be harmful to health.

In smaller versions of Burmese authorities’ regular ceremonies to burn large caches of seized narcotics, the Consumer Protection Association of Myanmar (CPAM)—a privately funded nongovernmental organization—is making pyres of packets of noodles and other snacks that it says are dangerous.

Director Ba Oak Khine said the group is working with municipal authorities in Burma’s major cities to enforce laws on food standards that are otherwise ignored in the campaign that began in Naypyidaw on Aug. 15.

“We will start the campaign in Rangoon within this month,” said Ba Oak Khine.

“We are still coordinating with the Mandalay municipal committee to launch the campaign in Mandalay.”

He said the products being confiscated were mostly readymade food including moldy packaged food, snacks made using banned chemical dyes, soft drinks with stimulant additives and imported food products that do not have their ingredients written in English or Burmese—which should not be sold in Burma, according to the Consumer Protection Law passed this year.

“We’ve seen that some sausages imported from China are marked in Chinese as dog food on the package,” said Ba Oak Khine by way of an example.

“But those sausages are sold for people here in Burma. The people buy the sausages because they do not understand the Chinese on the food package.”

Food products that are endangering people’s health have been cheaply and widely available in Burma for more than a decade, according to Ba Oak Khine, who blames ineffective countermeasures taken by the authorities.

Burma does have a Food and Drugs Association (FDA) charged with enforcing the rules around food products on sale in the country. And officials insist that they carry out regular surveys in markets and school canteens to look for potentially dangerous food, but identifying illegal products can take time.

“We usually send food samples back to the lab to test whether it includes harmful ingredients. Sometimes we do on-the-spot tests, like testing for chemical food coloring,” said a deputy director at the FDA, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Whenever we find some dangerous food that is not fit to be consumed, we put notices about those foods in the state newspaper.”

So far, there has not been any collaboration between the FDA and CPAM, despite their common goal.

“We cannot be sure whether every kind of food that is being confiscated by CPAM for being harmful to consume is actually dangerous or not,” the FDA official said.

Ba Oak Khine insisted that the group only confiscates products in breach of the Consumer Protection Law.

“According to the law, any readymade food product that is allowed to be sold within the country must have manufacturing date, expiry date and ingredients all displayed in Burmese or English on the package,” said Ba Oak Khine.

“The foods that we’ve confiscated all do not have these displayed on their package. Therefore we believe these foods are not suitable for people to consume.”

He added that CPAM targets the main distributors in big cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay.

“The large scale distributors in big cities are the main sources from which smaller shops around the country get these dangerous food products,” said Ba Oak Khine.

“If we target these distributors first, then we can reduce the availability of these products within the country while also cutting off the inflow of these products from the border regions.”